Globalisation and Culture: Is “homogenization” inevitable?
It is often asserted that “globalisation” results in cultural homogenization along ‘western’ lines.
However, both theory and some empirical studies indicates that the reception of cultural flows is not a passive, but rather an active process.
I would like to understand such a process better by looking at a limited, if pervasive, aspect of it, namely reception of ‘western’ TV programmes.
The primary objectives of the study are:
to understand why some programmes of ‘western’ provenance are popular and what values and meanings, if any, the audience(s) attributes to them.
to discover whether the characteristics of the ‘recipient’ has any impact upon which programmes are popular and the meanings assigned to them
to discover whether there are any major differences in orientation between regular viewers and irregular- or non-viewers of these programmes.
to elicit views on the broad issue of local culture and imported TV programmes
to arrive at some preliminary conclusions on globalization and cultural homogenization.
Background and Significance
There is a widespread belief -- on the part of many governments, NGOs, and the public at large -- that globalization leads to ‘westernization’ and homogeneity and the loss of global cultural heterogeneity, even worse, the loss of national identity.
Support for such a belief is adduced from the evident dominance and control of western-based transnationals, groups and individuals over the production of popular culture and news or, more generally, over the production of ‘taste’, as well as the increasing global dominance of English. Thus, it is pointed out how peoples all over the world are exposed to the same TV programmes and the same news sources, and that these are increasingly the product of US-based transnationals which share basic hegemonic values. Similarly, it is pointed out how increasingly people everywhere consume the same ‘junk’ food, use the same soaps, toothpastes, cosmetics, wear or at least aspire to the same fashions, listen to similar genres of popular music, follow the same ‘celebrities’, and increasingly dream the same dreams of ‘wealth’ and ‘progress’.
Despite this, there is also a body of theory and some empirical work which advance the view that local actors are not simply passive recipients -- ‘victims’ -- of such cultural, and indeed economic and political, flows; that, instead, local actors actively work upon such flows, advancing or promoting them, resisting them, or otherwise re-shaping them to various local and localised agendas and values.
If this is indeed the case, such cultural flows, rather than being part of an irresistible juggernaut, may provide instead the resources for transformative action on the part of local actors. While inevitably bringing about change, such flows nevertheless do not result in homogeneity but in a transformed heterogeneity. While the tokens -- the material items -- may indeed become more similar, their symbolic and cultural values will inevitably differ as these tokens are re-constituted and re-configured within different symbolic and cultural systems through local appropriation.
In many ways, Southeast Asia is itself a historical illustration of this. Contrary to current conceit, globalisation is, in itself, not a new phenomenon -- although there are many distinctive and unique features of the current phase of globalisation, as of others previous to it. In centuries past, eastern Asia, spanning the Indian subcontinent to northeast Asia, was the centre of an earlier phase of globalisation, with Southeast Asia being the transmission hub of global exchange. As such, it was also the transmission hub of cultural flows and hence itself subject to those flows. Yet, evidently, Southeast Asian societies, while absorbing much from these cultural flows, and much influenced by them, retained distinctive cultural and symbolic systems. It did so even in the face of such powerful forces as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. One need only point to the fact that, generally speaking, women in Southeast Asia had a significantly higher social status and experienced greater gender equality than the powerful neighbouring cultures of East and South Asia, and that this was sustained through the period of Islamization brought by societies with deep patriarchal biases.
Nevertheless, the distinctive and unique features of contemporary globalization must give pause to any facile assumption that what was true of the past holds for the present. To take one such feature: whereas in the past commodities arrived without a supporting cultural infrastructure and were absorbed by local societies within the local cultural rubric, today commodities arrive together with a supporting cultural infrastructure in the form of advertising, popular culture (films, music, etc.), and marketing. This must, in some way, affect the parameters within which local societies absorb those commodities, for the structure within which they acquire meanings are not simply the local and the localised.
Yet, some recent observations continue to indicate that the power of the local may yet be stronger than that of the global. One instance would the recent highly-acclaimed film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Despite its foreign language film status, it has been a huge box-office success in the United States -- “the most successful foreign language film in [United States] history” (Landler, 2001) -- and has been acclaimed by film critics. However, to varying degrees, it has not been much of a ‘hit’ in East and Southeast Asia, its greatest ‘failure’ being in Hong Kong and China. Contrariwise, some relative box-office failures in the United States, such as Schwarzenegger’s ‘The Sixth Day’ and di Caprio’s ‘The Beach’, have been hugely successful outside the United States (The Age, 26 Mar 2001).
It would be interesting to know whether the critical success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in the United States results in a re-valuation of the film in East and Southeast Asia. However, any such re-valuation can only be taken as indicative of the dominance of ‘the west’ in setting the standards of success and in generating interest; it cannot be taken as indicative of ‘homogenization’, even less of the cultural meanings and values assigned to the film by East and Southeast Asian audiences.
While attendance at a film, or purchase of a VCD or DVD, is a conscious, deliberate choice, television is beamed into the home and, increasingly, audiences the world over are beamed the same programmes.
Hence the focus of this project.
Television is uniquitous, and a significant -- if varying by country -- proportion of TV programming in the region derives from products (series, films, etc.) of western, primarily United States, provenance. For that reason, I would like to look at local reception of such TV programmes.
Ideally, there should be cross-country comparisons. However, time and language limitations dictate that I conduct this study in only one country, using my ‘native’ knowledge of my own country for comparative purposes. Given the limitations, I wish to conduct the study in Malaysia, given the presence there of major ethnic groups with distinctive histories and cultures.
This project will be conducted in Malaysia, as the cultural pluralism there provides a degree of internal controls for some meaningful comparisons. For the purposes of this study, the response and reception to two or three popular TV programmes of ‘western’ origin of urban-based members of at least two ethnic groups in at least two urban centres will be investigated. Non-viewers will also be surveyed to compare their orientations with those of viewers.
The reasons for the choice of at least two ethnic groups and two urban locations are:
to control for cultural differences between ethnic groups;
to control for the influence of location. Although it would be preferable to compare urban with rural, language barriers may be a major confounding factor as it is more than likely that rural populations do not have a sufficient familiarity with English to be attracted to these programmes.
Tentatively, the ethnic groups will be Malay and Chinese, and the two locations, Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley and Penang or Kuching.
Briefly, the approach will be as follows:
a sample survey of both viewers and non-viewers of the selected programmes will be conducted. In the case of the former, both their responses and reception of the selected programmes as well as their orientations to selected issues and items will be canvassed. In the case of the latter, only their orientations to selected issues and items will be canvassed for comparison with that of viewers.
focus groups, comprising individuals selected from the sample survey, will be formed to discuss the programmes and a number of selected issues. The objective will be to elicit their views on the cultural impact, or lack thereof, of the selected programmes.
discussions with local scholars and cultural activists on broader issues of culture and globalization.
Methodologically, the following will be carried out:
determination of the TV programmes with a significant viewership across ethnic lines, the source for such information to be the ratings reported by the TV stations;
design of questionnaire with two components: one (Q1) to canvas reception and response to the selected TV programmes, the other (Q2) to canvas attitudes and opinions to a number of selected issues and items. This will be designed with the help of local scholars and activists, and will be pre-tested;
selection of locations to be administered the questionnaires. This selection will be done on advice from local scholars and activists. As it is most unlikely that an appropriate sampling frame is available, the sample will be targetted to a certain size, to be determined, of both viewers and non-viewers of the selected programmes. The questionnaire will be administered with the help of local field assistants, preferably local university students;
selection of members of focus groups based upon preliminary analysis of sample survey results. The objective will be to obtain a ‘good’ mix of individuals in order to have a lively discussion on the selected programmes and their impact, if any. The focus group discussions will be chaired by one of the members and, permission forthcoming, will be video’d for later viewing and analysis. Extracts from the selected programmes will form a significant part of the material to be discussed, the extracts to be chosen for their ability to stir discussion. It is proposed that four discussions be held as follows: (i) only Malay viewers and non-viewers, (ii) Malay and Chinese viewers, (iii) Malay and Chinese non-viewers, and (iv) Malay and Chinese viewers and non-viewers. Note that these four discussions need not necessarily comprise the same persons. It would be good if they did, but in all probability, the selected persons will not want to sacrifice that much time.
analysis of the sample survey will be by the usual quantitative methods, while analysis of the focus group discussions will be largely qualitative.
Brief Schedule of Activities
May 2002: Discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists at Site 1. Determination of the appropriate TV programmes, questionnaire construction and sample selection, and pre-testing of questionnaire
June 2002: Administration of questionnaire in Site 1, and some preliminary tabulations to provide initial insights to be explored in focus group discussions and to select focus group members. Follow-up discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists with informal presentation of preliminary results.
July 2002: Focus group discussions at Site 1, with members of each ethnic group separately, and with them together. Continue discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists. Further analysis of questionnaire data and preliminary summaries of focus group discussions.
August 2002: Re-location to Site 2, discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists. A quick determination whether the selected TV programmes are appropriate to Site 2, followed by sample selection and administration of questionnaire.
September 2002: Continue administration of questionnaire, preliminary tabulations, and follow-up discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists at Site 2 with informal presentation of preliminary results.
September-October 2002: Focus group discussions at Site 2, in the same manner as at Site 1. Continue discussions with relevant academics and cultural activists. Further analysis of questionnaire data and preliminary summaries of focus group discussions.
November 2002: Complete analysis of questionnaire data from Site 1 and 2, and of focus group discussions. Preparation of draft paper.
December 2002: Presentation of draft paper at Site 1, followed by Site 2. Preliminary revisions.
Completion of final draft paper will be done in my home country and circulated electronically with the contacts amongst academics and cultural activists for comment and discussion.
A version for the API Web site and a version for publication in a regional academic journal will be finalised by May 2003, with more popular versions to follow.
As I hope to be able to conduct my study at, minimally, two different sites, I would require placement at these sites. Tentatively, the two sites selected are the KL/Klang Valley and Penang. However, I am open to the possibility of substituting Kuching, in Sarawak, for Penang. There are some compelling arguments for doing so, but at the same time, the differences between Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia may be such as to make comparisons in matters pertaining to culture less meaningful.
In the Klang Valley, placement will be with IKMAS, the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies at the National University of Malaysia (UKM).
In Penang, placement will be with the School of Communications and/or the School of Social Sciences at the Science University of Malaysia (USM).
Should Kuching be substituted for Penang, placement will be sought with the Institute of East Asian Studies and/or the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Malaysia in Sarawak (UNIMAS).
Main Anticipated Output and Dissemination
The main anticipated formal output of this study will be:
one or more newspaper articles in Malaysia and in my home country;
one or more papers in academic journals;
an article to be posted on the API Web site, perhaps even an edited version of one of the focus group discussions.
Informally, it is hoped that this study will stimulate more thought regarding the interaction between globalization, ‘western’ and local cultures, with greater attention to the active role of participants and how and whether this will provide the resources for greater and deeper democratisation than simply procedural and electoral democracy.
The Age (Melbourne). Academy Awards recognise few minorities. 26 Mar 2001.
Landler, Mark (2001). ‘Crouching Tiger’: Celebrated everywhere but in China. New York Times, Feb 27.